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If I were to say someone is suffering from anxiety, what are your first thoughts?  Someone hiding away at home, too frightened to leave.  Or someone who finds social situations too overwhelming and cancels most engagements.

What would you think if suggested people who on the face of it appear to be winning at life, could be suffering from anxiety too?  That their response to anxiety is to engage at a high level and achieve great things.  Whilst this may seem to be a positive side to anxiety, it can come at a huge personal cost.   

Let us just be clear about anxiety.

Anxiety is a neurotic response to a situation which is causing distress.  Anxiety is automatic and unconscious, and at times can be disproportionate to the situation.  We all sit on a scale of neurosis.  Some people will need to experience high levels of anxiety to exhibit a neurotic response, whilst others have a much lower threshold.

We tend to only consider the “flight” response to anxiety.  And when thinking of the “fight” response, we might think of it in terms of anger and aggression.  But the fight response can be hugely motivating and impact in a way which almost propels the person forward, making them a high achiever.

From the outside looking in, high achievers have it all.

They stand out in the workplace, are highly organised, enjoy a busy social life, remember every single Birthday, dress and look good, spend quality time baking and doing craft with their children.  The list goes on.

But there is a price to pay.   The drive to overachieve may be how that person manages their neurosis; to push themselves to the point which for many people would be unsustainable. Underneath this “super calm, high functioning” exterior could perhaps be a person full of self-doubt, who is craving reassurance and seeking approval.

These feelings of anxiety and self doubt may come from an anxious attachment. 

As a baby/young child, the person may have experienced their primary caregiver as inconsistent.  At times, the caregiver would have been attuned to their needs and engaged, whilst at other times being cold, unresponsive, or critical.  This causes the child to be confused and insecure since they do not know which behaviour to expect.  Furthermore, the child may have behaved in a way which went over and above in an attempt to feel loved and accepted.  This model of relating is what they take on into the world as adults.

I am not suggesting all high achievers have had anxious attachments or experience anxiety.  But if you identify with what I am saying and believe the drive to push yourself is driven by a sense of fear, I would invite you to be mindful of this.  I would also encourage you to explore if you can meet your needs in other less demanding ways.

Here are my top tips on how to manage high functioning anxiety:

  1. No is not a dirty word – It is imperative to have boundaries. Before you say yes and add even more to your plate, take a moment to think.  People will still accept you even if you say no.
  2. Ask for help – There is no doubt you are incredibly self-sufficient, but you still need help. We often think we must be desperate to reach out or for others.  Reaching out to nip things in the bud is often better than waiting for the situation to deteriorate.
  3. Do not wait for others to come to you – On the surface you are like a swan who is serenely gliding along the water.  People probably will not see the frantic paddling underneath.  If you need help, ask for it.
  4. Lower your expectations – Over achievers can place unrealistically high expectations upon themselves which can lead to negative self-talk where you fall short. This will only add to your anxiety.
  5. You are good enough – It is the notion you are not good enough or worthy of having your needs met which will be feeding your anxiety. Instead of putting others first, pay attention to yourself and be kind.  Focusing on self-care is proven to increase self-esteem and self-worth.

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